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Renata's Open Letter
Renata Avila, Guatemala City, 15 August 2011.
Dear friends and supporters of WikiLeaks,
I am a human rights and information rights lawyer working in Central America. I met both Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian Assange during the summer of 2008 at the Global Voices conference in Budapest.
Since then Mr Domscheit-Berg and I kept in touch via email and instant messaging service. When I met them I was very interested and excited by WikiLeaks' potential, particularly for human rights practitioners in Latin America, where institutions are very weak and offer little protection to human rights defenders.
In May 2009 I stayed at Mr Domscheit-Berg's home in Wiesbaden Germany for a week while I was visiting a research centre located a few hours from his home. On arriving at Mr Domscheit-Berg's home, Mr Assange had just left. Mr Domscheit-Berg explained to me that he had only asked Mr Assange to leave because there was not enough space for all three of us to stay in his home.
During my stay, he told me that he had had a great time with Mr Assange. He even went so far as to say it was the best time of his life. It was clear to me that he had very much enjoyed Mr Assange's company. He was full of admiration for Mr Assange, saying what a pleasure it was to talk to him and that he could listen him for hours. For example, he described the time they spent in Italy, at the journalism conference in Perugia, giving interviews and spending time with Italian colleagues as 'a wonderful time'.
Before leaving I gave WikiLeaks some documents detailing proof of torture and government abuse of a Latin American country. The documents were only in hard copy. I entrusted those valuable documents - the only copy available - to WikiLeaks because of the expertise of the people running it, their procedures, and the mechanisms they used to maximise impact when published.
I did not intend to give such material to Mr Domscheit-Berg personally, as was made clear to him by me at the time. My intention was to give it to the platform I trusted and contributed to - to WikiLeaks. The material has not been published and I am disturbed to read public statements by Mr Domscheit-Berg in which he states that he has not returned such documents to WikiLeaks.
Mr Domscheit-Berg and I stayed in touch. He invited me to his wedding in mid-2010 but I was unable to attend. After his wedding, I noticed that his enthusiasm, his interest and priorities regarding WikiLeaks changed significantly. His interest and dedication to WikiLeaks work had decreased.
After the arrest of Bradley Manning became public, I asked Mr Domscheit-Berg how I could help the young soldier, but he did not appear to be interested. He was on holiday! I sent him contact details of human rights workers I thought would be able to support Manning, which he said he forwarded on to someone else.
He never followed it up.
I was under the impression that he didn't care or that someone else must have the situation well in hand. It was only after he was suspended from WikiLeaks that he became outspoken about Manning.
The last time I saw him was on 7 October 2010 in Berlin, less than a month after he had been suspended from WikiLeaks. This was during the time of the WikiLeaks standoff with the Pentagon and the State Department. By that time his behaviour had changed a lot and he was clearly very hostile towards Mr Assange.
He had changed in other ways too. In the past he was seldom in the limelight; suddenly he was surrounding himself with journalists, arranging meetings, and giving disparaging interviews as 'former spokesperson' and 'second in command' of WikiLeaks to both local and international media. He criticised Mr Assange constantly.
We arranged to meet at a landmark and then we walked to his home. It was not a private meeting: he was in the company of US journalist Heather Brooke, who said she was leaving for the US in a few days, and a person who identified himself as a researcher writing about 'the Internet'.
I found it quite odd that someone usually very careful with strangers was inviting such people to his home. Mr Domscheit Berg, his wife, and Heather Brooke were toasting with champagne. All the people were offered a glass, but the reason for the toast was unclear and the conversation between them was cryptic.
I left quietly. Heather Brooke subsequently published an article about her upcoming book in the UK tabloid Daily Mail (2011-08-07) entitled 'The WikiFreak: In a new book one author reveals how she got to know Julian Assange and found him a predatory, narcissistic fantasist' in which she states:
'One of his disaffected colleagues gave me a full set of the US diplomatic cables that Assange was planning to use in his next publication.'
- Heather Brooke
I was surprised and disappointed to read that Mr Domscheit-Berg, both in his public interviews and in his paperback book published in February 2011, makes a number of extraordinary statements about his work with WikiLeaks and about Mr Assange.
I have been surprised by the number of statements he has made that I know from first hand experience to be false. One of the most extraordinary statements Mr Domscheit-Berg has made is that Mr Assange abused his cat (in Germany) so severely it was driven to psychosis. This is a serious allegation because animal cruelty is a crime in Germany and it is very damaging for someone to be presented as an animal abuser, especially when that is not the case.
The allegation was made by Mr Domscheit-Berg in his book and subsequently reprinted by the New York Times and AFP newswire. I understand from press reporters that Mr Domscheit-Berg has sold the book to Steven Spielberg's Hollywood production house DreamWorks.
I can confidently say that, while visiting Mr Domscheit-Berg in Wiesbaden, I was able to meet and observe his cat. This was immediately after Mr Assange had been staying with him. I myself have a cat and from my observations it was a perfectly normal and healthy cat that, like all cats, enjoyed attention.
Mr Domscheit-Berg was too busy to pay him much attention, as he was often on the telephone or on the computer, so I spent quite a bit of time playing with the cat. Mr Domscheit-Berg watched and replied, laughing fondly, that the way I was playing with the cat was 'exactly the same way' Mr Assange had played with the cat the week before. There was absolutely no mention from Mr Domscheit-Berg that the cat had been abused or mistreated in any way by Mr Assange.
Therefore it is very unlikely that a healthy animal, behaving normally and playing with strangers, had any disorder provoked by Mr Assange's behaviour, as suggested by Mr Domscheit-Berg.
I was alarmed by all the private details Domscheit-Berg was disclosing to journalists, irrelevant details that only yellow press or groups hostile to WikiLeaks or Mr Assange would care about. Useful details for someone willing to divert the attention from all the important information disclosed by WikiLeaks sources.
I am still surprised at the importance Domscheit-Berg gives to every tiny detail of Mr Assange's conduct while at the same time ignoring or choosing not to explore what WikiLeaks sources reveal. The revelation of torture in a country receiving international aid to equip their security forces would seem to me be a better use of time, to those claiming to care about transparency, than the eating habits and clothing styles of an ordinary citizen leading a tiny NGO with a micro budget.
Now with the announcement of OpenLeaks two questions arise: the first will be if those behind the new platform have access to copies and they intend to publish documents people like me sent to WikiLeaks? If that is the case, such conduct would be wrong and largely disrespectful of the will of the sources - those who sent the documents wanted WikiLeaks to publish them. They did not intend for Mr Domscheit-Berg to keep them for himself, for almost a year. The other is will OpenLeaks request their permission to publish it? And if so, how? Is it legitimate to free-ride on the trust of people like me have in WikiLeaks?
These are valid questions, still waiting for a response.
Journalists also owe a response to their public, waiting for relevant content to be published, like the largely ignored content of the prisoners in Guantánamo or the relevant facts unveiling abuse in Syria, the threats faced by union leaders in countries like mine, relevant facts that a platform like WikiLeaks and the courage of sources made possible to surface.
The purpose of this letter goes beyond clarifying Mr Assange's behaviour. It is a reflection and an invitation to move the conversation to what is relevant, what is urgent, and how to behave accordingly.
Cc: WikiLeaks, Chaos Computer Club Board
Renata Avila holds a masters degree in intellectual property and has also studied digital rights, antitrust law, human rights, international private law, and Internet governance. Today she specialises in human rights, international criminal, international private, and copyright law. The Creative Commons Project lead in Guatemala, she also completed research last year for the Open Net Initiative.
You ask if I'd change anything if I could do it all over? Yes. One staff hire.
- Julian Assange
Pathological liars always have great faith in their own honesty. That's what helps them lie.
- Julian Assange
You have fucked up in so many ways and you want me to enumerate them but what is the point if you can't see things for yourself?
- Julian Assange to Daniel Domscheit-Berg May 2010
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